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Classics in the attic: Forgotten works have a habit of resurfacing unexpectedly

Forgotten works have a habit of resurfacing most unexpectedly, in the most unexpected places. You may find one while sifting through the pickings of the local raddiwallah and lo, your life changes. Earlier this month, a novel from the early 1930s was published for the first time, marking a rare and momentous event.

The novel, Romance in Marseille, is by Claude McKay (1889-1948), a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Given that the book revolves round queerness, slavery and explores the possibility of the creation of a post-colonial African identity, McKay’s agent felt that it would be too shocking for readers of the time. For McKay, a writer of Jamaican origin who was bisexual and a Marxist, that was reason enough to shelve the novel.

Scholars had been aware for some time that two manuscripts of Romance in Marseille were held by Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Yale’s Beinecke Library. But copyright issues and a perceived lack of market interest prevented the book from being published. Until now.

Incidentally, this is the second of McKay’s works to resurface. Amiable with Big Teeth, a 1941 work that remained unknown until a scholar found the typescript in an archive a decade ago, is another. This was published in 2017.

Mere mischance?

In 2019, a British publisher reissued a long-forgotten work, What Not, by Rose Macaulay. Originally published in 1918, the novel sketches a dystopian future where the government ranks people by intelligence, insists on ‘mind-training’ for all its citizens, and maintains strict control on childbirth. Clearly, the space that Brave New Worldand 1984 later came to own had already been explored to chilling effect by Macaulay. Why had the novel been neglected for so long? Did Rose’s gender have anything to do with it? Or was it mere mischance?

Like the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman in 2015, readers are awaiting unpublished stuff from the estate of the reclusive J.D. Salinger.

Look again

But anyone talking of discoveries and rediscoveries of lost literary classics must necessarily remember U.V. Swaminatha Iyer (‘Tamil Thatha’). Born in 1855, Iyer was a Tamil scholar who studied under the formidable Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and was later employed in the Government Arts College at Kumbakonam as a Tamil teacher. On October 21, 1880, a day “etched in red letters” (as Iyer was to describe it in En Sarithiram, his autobiography), he met Ramaswami Mudaliar, a District Munsiff recently posted to Kumbakonam.

A Tamil scholar himself, Mudaliar asked Iyer where and what he had studied. As Iyer rattled off the ancient Tamil texts that he had spent years mastering, Mudaliar remained unimpressed. He then asked if Iyer had read the Jeevaka Chintamani or Silappadikaram. A.K. Ramanujan writes in his essay, ‘Language and Social Change’, that Iyer was aghast that “he had not even heard of them”. Mudaliar handed him the palm-leaf manuscripts of Jeevaka Chintamani.

Iyer went on to transcribe Jeevaka Chintamani, a Buddhist work, on paper and published the epic with notes and commentaries in 1887. It was an instant success.

The success of Jeevaka Chintamani motivated Iyer to search for the original texts of other ancient literary works, a search that lasted till his death. He visited hundreds of villages to obtain palm-leaf manuscripts. He rediscovered Purananooru (from the Sangam era) and Manimekalai (an offshoot of Silappadikaramfeaturing some of the same characters). He had these twin epics of ancient Tamil literature republished. In a span of about five decades, Iyer published close to 100 books — all of them long-forgotten Tamil works.

In 2005, Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri — one of the classics of Indian English poetry and for many years available only in small numbers from one publisher — was issued internationally for the first time, to great acclaim.

Similarly, in the early 90s, G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr came up for air after decades of neglect and non-availability.

Are there other masterpieces that deserve a second look? A lost/ forgotten novel by Raja Rao, perhaps? Set off to your nearest library or raddiwallah — who knows what treasures lurk there.

The Bengaluru-based writer works in publishing.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 10:14:42 PM |

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